We’re sitting in Eleftheria Arvanitaki’s elegant central Athens apartment, reminiscing about a Saturday evening a decade ago. After an epic four hour open concert by her, we’d ended up in a street café in the small hours, our little daughters falling asleep while the big people consumed good food, wine and conversation. Were those little girls really now both all grown up? And is it possible, I thought to myself, that the slimly serene and beautiful Eleftheria, one of Europe’s greatest voices, doesn’t look a day older?
Later that evening, the same thought came back to me, and my admiration for her artistry rocketed, when I experienced a different kind of show. Arriving for what been told was a club gig shared with fellow Greek singer Dimitra Galani, I discover that far from being something like Ronnie Scott’s as I’d pictured, the Rex is a converted Bauhaus cinema, 1500 people jammed on tables more tightly packed than imagination (and fire safety) might allow. Dressed to the gills, many of the men are looking like trainee shipping magnates on heat while their women are in severe tacky attack, blonded somewhere twixt Hilton P and Parton D (and looking mightily confused as yours truly and pals Kristi Stassinopoulou and Stathis Kalyviotis get whisked through the velvet rope in leather jackets and jeans). Inside, they smoke like chimneys, drink like fish, laugh and shout – over which Eleftheria sings like an angel, her band excel, and she’s doing this three hours a night, four nights a week, 70 shows. This woman is amazing!
One of the many other things to admire about Eleftheria is that she is a fearless musical adventurer. While she comes from the tradition (her early ‘80s days were rembetika group Opisthodromiki Compania) and can stay true to it (as demonstrated on 1998’s Ektos Programmatos), she can produce modern music with deep roots her masterwork Ta Kormia Ke Ta Maheria/ The Bodies And The Knives), get involved in serious art projects (last year’s Grigora I Ora Perase / The Time Passed Quickly with composer Nikos Xydakis and lyrics by Sappho), collaborate with international artists like Ara Dinkjian, Cesaria Evora, Philip Glass, Dulce Pontes, Ismael Lô and many Greek names, or just do great singalong Europop like her big hit Dynata Dynata.
This has occasionally baffled audiences on her UK concerts: for her Womad appearance in 1998 and London dates around that time she had a roots band with some of Greece’s best players including clarinet giant Manos Achalinotopoulos and bouzouki player Manolis Pappos, who thrilled the ‘world music’ crowd but left the Greek expats wondering where the pop hits were. Later shows with keyboards and rock musicians had the lighter-waving Greek hordes ecstatic but the world music bunch sliding down into their seats. As my aforementioned daughter first figured out from that Athens show in 1998, the best way to see any artist is in the open air in their own country – that night she’d done the lot (plus three frock changes) and left everybody of all tastes completely sated. But back to the conversation… we’re talking about all those different musical voyages that Eleftheria has taken over the years, and how she handles audience expectations. “If I can sit back and say what I do, it’s always to combine different things and different experiences. So at the shows you saw, you saw all the changes that I make. And I do the same show, the same mixture in London where there are many Greeks, or in Spain or Mexico where there are few Greeks in the audience. The only difference is that in London I play longer.” Eleftheria ought to be far better known than she is internationally though. “It’s a big problem here in Greece, we don’t really know how to communicate with Europe. We are in Europe, but Greece is not in the circle. We’ve never had artists in Greece make a career outside. We had Theodorakis when he was in Paris, we had Mouskouri who stayed in Germany, but no one starts from Greece to go out. One of the big problems is the record companies, the other is the Ministry of Culture, they don’t really care. So they both do nothing.”
We talk about how Greek records (like Japanese) fall at the first international hurdle because the type is in a different, non-Roman alphabet script: it doesn’t have to be translated, just readable, attempted pronounceable. “They only think of selling abroad to Greeks. Small Greek labels are starting to do this and communicate with small labels all over Europe and trying to make a new market, but not big labels like Universal who have the opportunity but don’t know how to do it.” Eleftheria records for Universal…
The stimulating conversation wends on, discussing how much money the top instrumentalists can make in Greece so they’re not motivated to work abroad, about being true to your culture, about the rhythm of language, the familiarity of Armenian, Persian and Lebanese music… Eleftheria’s next album is being made in collaboration with awardwinning Spanish producer/ musician/ composer Javier Limon.
“It’s a Spanish/ Greek record – Greek songs that I collected together, but the way he hears the sound. It has nothing to do with flamenco, it’s his personality. He wrote one song for me in Spanish, but the rest is in Greek, even one song from Persia. Spanish musicians, recorded there, then he’s coming here to add the original Greek instruments – oud, bouzouki, maybe qanun, we will try many things and see what fits. And then I have to decide what the touring band will be.” Last word was that the album is likely
As Greece’s fearless singing adventurer embarks on yet another remarkable project, Ian Anderson pays a call.